International artists reclaim Trump’s insult

Trump once called them "shitholes." Now artists from those countries are reclaiming the epithet.

Earlier this year, when Wandulu Timothy, an artist in Rwanda, heard President Donald Trump refer to his country as a “sh*thole,” his instinct was to laugh.

“We have a lot of things happening, so we don’t have a lot of time to think about what his statements mean to us,” he said in a phone conversation from the capital city Kigali. “We take those statements as a joke. Maybe he doesn’t really know what’s going on here.”

Timothy painted a portrait of himself, laughing, layered with newspaper clippings of stories from Rwanda. He submitted the piece to a one-day exhibition in Philadelphia of work by artists in countries President Trump insulted.

“Everybody loves America, and I have so much respect for leaders. I just can’t attack him. It doesn’t make a difference if I attack him,” said Timothy of his piece, called “You Entertain Me.” “You are like a comedian to me. You don’t portray what you are supposed to be.”

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The title of the exhibition, “Sh*tholes,” comes from the epithet Trump used in a conversation last January with lawmakers considering protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and countries in Africa. The White House never denied the remark.

The exhibition features 98 pieces – mostly prints and photographs – by 23 artists from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Cambodia, the island nation Mauritius, and a few Americans.

There is photography from refugee camps, comic art, feminist Arabic design, imaginary maps of cities in north Africa, architectural renderings in soft pastels of modernist buildings in Mexico.

Steve Garguilo holds a photograph by Amine Landoulsi of Tunisia as he prepares for a one-day exhibit at the Adrienne. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

None of the pieces (except one video piece) refers to Trump directly, in name or image. There is no mention of the president in the exhibition materials.

“A lot of people focus everything they do around Trump. Everything is Trump-this and Trump-that. We decided we wanted to be artist-forward and share work of the artists,” said the co-creator of the exhibition, Steve Garguilo. “The spectacle of his comment is a good hook to get people into this art from these countries.”

The exhibition is by Le Chapeau Project, created by Garguilo and his partner Fatene Ben-Hamza to stage arts events in locations around the world. “Sh*tholes” in Philadelphia is their very first event, held for exactly one day – Friday – in the Adrienne Theater on Sansom Street in Center City.

Garguilo hopes the brevity of the exhibition — just nine hours, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. — will create a sense of excitement and urgency. It allows Le Chapeau to pack the day with performances, food, and special amenities not possible in a longer show.

“People will read into this — and they should — a very serious message of, we shouldn’t attack nationalities, we shouldn’t attack people of color,” he said. “At the same time, it’s fun to showcase art. It’s fun to bring people together and have dancers and stuff.”

The exhibition has been officially recognized by Philadelphia City Council, which issued a resolution introduced Thursday by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown for “challenging the negative narrative surrounding individuals from Africa, Asia, and the Americas.”

Garguilo was born in Central Pa., and now lives in Ciudad Jaurez, Mexico. Ben-Hamza was born in France and lived in Tunisia and Morocco until this summer when she relocated to New York. The pair has built a vast international network through their careers and deep involvement with TED Talks.

Through that network they sent a call for artists and received a few hundred applications. They whittled it down to 23.

Some might be recognized: the charismatic Ruganzo Bruno of Uganda is making a name for himself internationally, and Jason JaFLEU — a Haitian comic artist in West Palm Beach, Florida – has a prominent following.

Mostly, however, the artists will be unknown to visitors at the Adrienne Theater.

“For some of these artists it’s such a tremendous deal,” said Garguilo. “You wouldn’t believe the emotional Facebook posts and blog posts, saying, ‘My work is being represented in the United States at this gallery with people from all these other countries. I never thought this day would happen.’”

For Timothy in Rwanda, adding himself to the roster of “Sh*tholes” is an opportunity to put both himself and his country on a pedestal.

“In Rwanda we really don’t have space to exhibit. The art industry is not as big as Uganda or Kenya,” he said. “Maybe people don’t yet know about Rwanda. If we change the way things are done in Rwanda, it will push the people coming here looking for art to share more outside Rwanda.”

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